From Civilian to Sailor: A Personal Essay

By Ian LaBlance, NMAS Exhibit Specialist

While every sailor who enlists in the United States Navy goes through bootcamp, every experience is unique. Bootcamp is where civilians become sailors, and sometimes the first time the young recruits are away from home. Below is the personal bootcamp experience of the museum’s Exhibit Specialist, Ian LaBlance.

My name is Ian Lablance and I am currently the Exhibit Specialist for the National Museum of the American Sailor and a twenty-two year retired navy veteran. In this entry, I chose to write about my bootcamp experience. Luckily, my family kept my letters and I kept several documents from my time in bootcamp.

This small guidebook I received about Navy Bootcamp.

First, I would like to say it was an honor and privilege to serve in our Navy. My time spent on active duty and in reserve was amazing and I served with some of the greatest Americans. In addition, Navy bootcamp is always evolving and improving. I cannot speak to how boot camp is today, but I know the core goal is still to create the best-enlisted sailors in the world, as it was when I went through in 1991.

Naval Training Center Orlando main sign.

At the age of 17, I enlisted in the US Navy’s Delayed Entry Program (DEP) to attend bootcamp at Naval Training Center Orlando Florida (NTC Orlando) as an Electronic Technician. The day after I graduated from high school in July 1991, I took a bus from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Lancing, Michigan for initial processing. Processing took one day and from there I went on to NTC Orlando, which is when I started my journal.

The official NTC Orlando stationary.

In a letter I sent home on July 9, 1991, I wrote about the first few days:

 “Hi Mom and everyone else at home,

I left Lansing at 4:45PM on the 3rd. Flew to Detroit and arrived at 5:10. At 5:45 we left Detroit for Orlando. We arrived in Orlando at about 9:00. Then at about 10:30 we left the airport and drove to the base “Navy World”. Here everything ends with world “Sea World”, “Circus World”, “Flea World”…Once here, we started processing which ended at 2:30AM and then started again 4:30AM. We got 2 hours of sleep at most. Today, I got my head shaved.”

My first letter home on the pre-written letter I sent to my family with my new bootcamp mailing address.

The first few days of boot camp were filled with forming up in a company, receiving my uniforms, medical shots, medical and dental exams, and learning my new life as a recruit. They taught me about military bearings, how to make my bed, fold and keep my uniforms, how to march, and daily physical fitness drills. 

Putting on my Blues for the first time.

In another early letter I wrote: 

“Every day, we wake up and go to the fieldhouse for 100 jumping jacks, 75 sit ups, 75 pushups and 7 laps around the grinder.” 

Beyond our morning physical fitness drills, we would often receive further physical training (PT) called cycling. Cycling was additional physical training used as punishment for errors. This include push-ups, sit-ups, leg raises, jumping jacks, running on the spot and eight-count body builders. A typical cycling session was conducted in our barracks by our Company Commanders, and lasted until they felt the lesson had been learned. 

This is a drawing I sent home about the first few day at Camp Boot. 

It seemed all new recruits got “The bootcamp funk”; which was combination of homesickness, the effects of the shots, lack of sleep, all mixed with a standard cold virus. The first few weeks were the most difficult but then bootcamp, for me, became fun. 

On July 9, 1991 I wrote:

“The food here is OK but the water is gross. The most enjoyable time I have had so far is marching on the hard mat with lightning storms all around us. Orlando is the lightening capital of the world. My CC’s company commander are CPO Williams and PO1 Grandal. Both are real cool dudes so far.”

This photo is from the Navy Bootcamp guidebook I received.

 In one of my late July letters, I wrote:

“We must be precise and pay great attention to details and we must always keep our military bearing”.

These skills were tested through daily classes about the navy, drills, and a gauntlet of inspections. We had personal inspections, locker inspections, bunk inspections, and barracks inspections. Failing an inspection was a very serious matter and required retraining and additional inspections. In addition, failure of an inspection often lead to cycling sections, and could lead to removal from your company and placed to a newer company to redo training. I failed my CSRE locker inspection and received Intensive Training (IT) for three days. IT required getting up at 3:00 A.M. and marching to the fieldhouse for PT. This training was harder than cycling, and only passed when the trainers were satisfied. If failed three times, sailors were sent back. I luckily pass on all three days and never got IT again in bootcamp. 

One of my Street Markers.

Another opportunity for trouble was a pulled Street Marker. Street Markers were a demerit system for doing something wrong. Every recruit carried a Street Mark in their shirt pocket and if that recruit was seen messing up by any of the base staff, the staff member could take it and report the error to the division. This could get you or your company a cycling section or worst.

 On July 26 1991, I wrote home:

“We lined up for supper and all at once the sky turned black. Lightning struck the ground in 3 places all around us and very close. Loud bangs went off. The base alarms went off. That means everyone is to go to the nearest building in an orderly fashion and everything is to be secured. But as soon as the alarms when off 1500 recruits and staff members ran straight to the galley. It looked really cool but still fun.”

By late July 1991, I actually was enjoying bootcamp. I was assigned to Drill Team and became the right guard to the national ensign. In addition, I had many new friends and loved drill practice and preparing for Pass-In-Review. I wrote in several of my letters about some of the privileges of being on the drill team and one highlight was to be parking lot attendance for the graduating Sailors/Pass-In-Review. I also got to work in the Field House and the company’s barracks during workweek. Most of company spent workweek work in the galley. 

A self portrait in my Drill Team uniform.

In one of my last boot camp letters, I spoke of how Pass-In-Review was a blast and how sharply we all performed. The next day after graduation, my company all went to Busch Gardens and two day later, I went to Disneyland. 

My ticket to Disney World.

These are just a few of my memories and experiences of bootcamp. There were many challenges but I would not change a thing. NTC Orlando was a great start of my awesome Naval career. 

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